Sleepy Doctors Make Dangerous Drivers

March 17, 2005

New doctors work long hours in the hospital. Shifts lasting longer than 24 hours and a total workweek of more than 80 hours are not uncommon. Many doctors get very little sleep during these long shifts and must drive themselves home when they get off work. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine (January 13, 2005) shows that these doctors are more likely be involved in car accidents than doctors who do not work extended hours.

Researchers surveyed 2,737 first-year doctors ("interns") about their work schedules and driving incidents (crashes, near-misses). These interns spent an average of 70.6 hours each week at work in the hospital. The doctors averaged almost four extended shifts (shifts lasting more than 24 hours) each month. The average extended shift lasted 32 hours.

During the period of the study, doctors were involved in 131 motor vehicle crashes and 3,127 near-misses while driving after work. Doctors who drove after an extended shift were 2.3 times more likely to have a car crash and 5.9 times more likely to have a near-miss incident than doctors who do not work extended hours. Working extended shifts also increased the risk of falling asleep while driving or while stopped in traffic. Doctors who worked five or more extended shifts in one month were 2.39 times more likely to fall asleep while driving and 3.69 times more likely to fall asleep while stopped in traffic.

It is unfortunate that young doctors have to work long hours. They have a tremendous responsibility to deliver the best medical care to their patients. People who are sleep deprived may have lapses in memory and concentration. Sleep deprived doctors may put their patients at risk if errors in treatment are made.

Is it time to change the way young doctors work? Truck drivers and airline pilots have restrictions on the amount of time they can work. Perhaps the work schedules of doctors should have similar restrictions because well-rested doctors may reduce errors in the hospital and on the road.

References and more information:

  1. Barger, L.K., Cade, B.E., Ayas, N.T., Cronin, J.W., Rosner, B., Speizer, F.E. and Czeisler, C.A. Extended work shifts and the risk of motor vehicle crashes among interns. New England Journal of Medicine, 352:125-134, 2005.
  2. Sleep - Neuroscience for Kids
  3. Losing Sleep. Sleep Deprivation in the US
  4. Feeling Illogical? Take a Nap!

BACK TO: Neuroscience In the News Table of Contents


Fill out